For its fifth hearing, the Jan. 6 committee unloaded grave evidence of former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election by deploying pressure that reached into every branch of the U.S. government and was, evidence revealed on Thursday, advanced by a slew of sitting U.S. lawmakers who allegedly later sought pardons for their actions leading up to the insurrection.
More than two hours of testimony were delivered from a panel of Republicans and former members of the Department of Justice, including former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, his deputy Richard Donoghue, and Richard Engel, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel.
Each told the committee on Thursday that Trump tried to corrupt the DOJ by having the department’s leadership cosign on his lies about fraud in the 2020 election and, when the officials would not go along with a plan to have the department make an announcement it knew was verifiably false, Trump tried to install Jeffrey Clark, a lawyer and lackey first introduced to him by Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican.
It was bombshell after bombshell during the hearing, led in large part by panel member and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
But it might have been the deposition from former Trump White House counsel Eric Herschmann that put the finest of fine points on Trump and Clark’s gambit to have the DOJ throw its full weight behind what committee chair Bennie Thompson described as a “political coup” on Thursday.
When Clark went to Herschmann and revealed his plan—to install himself as attorney general so he could send off letters to swing state legislatures informing them the department had found evidence of fraud—Herschmann remarked:
“I said good,… fucking a-hole… congratulations. You’ve just admitted your first step or act you’d take as attorney general would be committing a felony in violation of Rule 6 (c ).”
Herschmann added sarcastically to Clark: “You’re clearly the right candidate for this job.”
Clark, incidentally, had his Virginia home searched by authorities from the Department of Justice early Thursday morning. According to Russell Vought, a former Trump administration official, Clark was drawn out into the street in his pajamas as law enforcement seized his electronic devices. ABC News was first to report the development.
Though a White House lawyer told Clark he would be committing a felony if he went through with his plan and Rosen’s predecessor, Attorney General Bill Barr had repeatedly told Trump that allegations of widespread voter fraud were meritless, Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel described an increasingly desperate president clinging to fading power.
Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel’s focus stayed largely on calls and meetings that unfolded at the White House from mid-December through Jan. 6.
But it was a Jan. 3 meeting with Trump in the Oval Office that was a make-or-break moment.
Rosen said Trump called him “virtually every day” leading up to Jan. 3 and would complain directly that the Department of Justice wasn’t doing enough to look into fraud. Trump suggested appointing a special counsel to investigate wild conspiracy theories already debunked by the nation’s intelligence community and the DOJ. Trump had asked Rosen to hold press conferences and release statements anyway.
Video deposition from Trump’s attorney, Sidney Powell, that played Thursday corroborated this as she told investigators that Trump asked her directly to take up the special counsel role after Barr and Rosen refused to appoint one.
Donoghue said he tried to explain to Trump that only states could run their elections and the Department of Justice was not his “quality control.” But the message didn’t penetrate, no matter how methodical the DOJ leader’s descriptions.
“The DOJ declined all of these requests because we did not think they were appropriate based on the facts and laws as we understood them,” Rosen testified.
By the time Jan. 3 rolled around, much had already developed, some of it behind Rosen’s back and against his advice to Clark. Rosen warned him about meeting with members of the White House outside of the proper protocols dictated by DOJ and White House policy alike.
White House visitor logs newly showed on Thursday that Clark was hauled into the White House to meet Trump on Dec. 20 by Trump’s election fraud theory-peddling ally, Perry.
Perry, text messages to Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows showed, was eager to elevate Clark’s role at the DOJ.
“Mark, just checking in as time continues to count down. 11 days to 1/6 and 25 days to the inauguration. We gotta get going,” Perry wrote on Dec. 26.
Two days later, Clark would show Rosen and Donoghue the letter he wanted them to approve. When Donoghue looked at it, he said Thursday, it was “so extreme” he couldn’t wrap his head around it at first.
“The person who drafted this lawsuit didn’t really understand the law, or how the Supreme Court works or the Department of Justice,” Engel said of the Clark letter.
Rosen warned Clark that his plan amounted to the DOJ meddling in the election of a U.S. president.
24 hours before the meeting on Jan. 3 in the Oval, Donoghue, Rosen, and Clark clashed again. Trump had just asked Donoghue on New Year’s Eve to seize voting machines. Meadows was firing off emails, trying to draw Clark higher and higher up the chain of command.
Tensions rose even higher when Clark told Rosen he was poised to replace him. At Trump’s request.
Rosen gathered his most trusted officials to prepare for a meeting with Trump. He would not be fired by his subordinate, he testified Thursday.
After speaking to a group of attorneys general at the department who vowed to resign if Trump went through with the plan to install Clark, Rosen, Donoghue, and Engel were finally ready.
At the meeting on Jan. 3, they told the 45th president in no uncertain terms that Clark had no experience conducting criminal investigations and that it was, in Donoghue’s words, “impossible,” “absurd” and bound to fail if Trump went through with it.
Clark, Donoghue said in front of everyone in the room, was “incompetent” and if Trump insisted on replacing Rosen there would be mass resignations and no one would pay a lick of attention to his voter fraud claims.
Instead, Donoghue remarked, all anyone would think about is how Trump “went through two attorneys general in two weeks” until they found whatever rube they could to sign off on Clark’s letter to state legislatures demanding fake electors be appointed and fraud investigated.
White House attorney Pat Cipollone was present. He called the letter a “murder-suicide pact.”
With an awkward air filling the room, Trump relented. In part.
What would they do with Clark if he didn’t replace Rosen? Would Donoghue fire him?
Donoghue explained to Trump he didn’t have the authority since Clark was Senate-confirmed. It would have to be Trump’s call.
Trump did not fire Clark.
Donoghue, Engel, and Rosen would not speak to Trump on Jan. 6.
On Jan. 11, 2021, less than a weeks after the insurrection was quelled and the Capitol found itself standing, albeit battered and newly deluged by National Guardsmen and security fencing, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama sprang to action.
Brooks was seeking a pardon for himself and other members of Congress who helped stoke Trump’s lies about election fraud. It was pre-emptive for all members of the House and Senate who voted to reject the Electoral College certification of Biden’s win in Pennsylvania and Arizona.
John McEntee, Trump’s former head of personnel, testified to the committee that Trump hinted at a “blanket pardon for the Jan. 6 thing.”
Brooks’s email—subject line “Pardons”—requested one for Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. Gaetz was under investigation by the Department for paying for sex with a 17-year-old girl at the time though that information had not yet been made public when Brooks sent the request.
Meadows’ aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, testified that others, like Rep. Perry, Louis Gohmert of Texas and Andy Biggs of Arizona also asked for pardons. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Hutchinson said, inquired about one to the White House Counsel’s office.
Kinzinger remarked Thursday: “The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime.”
The lawmakers have issued swift denials, with Brooks claiming that he only asked for a pardon because he feared a punitive “Socialist Democrat” majority hellbent on prosecuting Trump’s allies.